Some Words About A Film
Here’s another entry in the Films About Fear Series. This time around the film in question is Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002), at it’s heart, a post-millenial update of Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985). Again, if you haven’t yet seen the film and would still like to do so with minimal preconceptions and plot knowledge, please stop reading and simply enjoy this still from Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster (1971).
All films have some political content beneath their surface (duh), this proves particularly true of the horror genre. Each strain has certain ideological tendencies – slasher flicks express a conservative, Reaganite fear of sexuality, to be lethally acted out on every raunchy teen in the suburbs, films featuring haunting and possessions punish those who cling to rational, scientific thinking, while movies featuring zombies tend to tackle socioeconomic and geopolitical issues in one way or another.
The central disaster driving the narrative of 28 Days Later, not entirely a traditional zombie plague but functionally close enough, begins when a group of animal rights activists breaks into a lab and releases chimpanzees infected with “Rage,” a disease, transmitted via blood, that makes primates mindlessly violent and aggressive within seconds of exposure. There are a number of potential layers of meaning in this brief first scene. For one, the activists could be considered “terrorists,” especially under some of the more expansive terrorism laws passed in the United States post-9/11. Transmission by blood perhaps suggests both AIDS, and the general fear of contamination of the body and body politic discussed earlier. Most important is the initial establishing shot, a close zoom on a group of televisions (with tell-tale scan lines) showing news coverage of riots, which then widens to reveal that the footage is being shown to a chimpanzee strapped to a table. In the context of the violence that the chimpanzees shortly unleash, this could imply that on some level, global media are partially responsible for the social unrest they depict. At the very least, the decision to begin the film with this image makes it clear that actual social unrest and political violence by both state (riot police) and non-state actors (rioters) are being transferred to the “Rage” infection and its carriers, to be symbolically acted out.
So, to quickly sum up the less ideologically meaty first hour of the film, which throws together elements from the first two Romero Dead movies and The Omega Man: Cillian Murphy, having been in a bicycle-crash induced coma while all of England was swept by Rage, wakes up in an empty hospital and proceeds to learn important lessons about friendship, death, the effect of light on zombies (these ones don’t hate the wheel) and what’s really important in an apocalyptic disaster, all while forming a scrappy team with a cabbie (Brendan Gleeson), his young daughter (Megan Burns), and a tough inevitable love interest (Naomie Harris), who together escape into the relatively safe and idyllic countryside, following the directions of a broadcast recording instructing them to go to an army blockade around Manchester. (The issue of how frequently an escape to the countryside to start anew is the answer to dangerous or simply malaise-filled modern urban situations, especially zombie-filled ones, and how it might relate to both left/green localism and communitarianism and backward-looking conservative utopianism requires a piece of its own.)
Gleeson is infected, by twist of fate, and shot quite a number of times by soldiers who then take Murphy, Harris and Burns to the country manor they have encamped in. The Major in charge, played by Christopher Eccleston, states that for the soliders their “real job is to rebuild”. Over the course of the day he begins to reveal some of his ideas and plans, and what rebuilding means to him. 28 Days Later, like Day of the Dead before it, feature zombies who have been captured for observation and ultimately lead to the downfall of their captors. In the earlier film, set in an underground military facility in Florida, scientists attempt to study the zombies in hopes of finding a way to reverse the process, find a cure, or train the zombies to be useful servants. In other words, to make an unruly, dangerous mass like them, or make them controllable. In 28 Days Later, the Major says that the infected human he keeps chained in a yard tells him only a few things – that he’ll “never bake bread, farm crops, raise livestock” and that he’s “futureless”, although eventually he will also tell him how long the infected take to starve to death. It’s no coincidence that this infected human is dark-skinned. The army outpost’s relationship to the infected is much the same as xenophobic Europe’s to its immigrant population – it sees it as a dangerous, unemployable mass. The attempts at a form of domestication in Day of the Dead have given way to a strategy of separation from the terrifying masses, waiting for them to starve. Who’s to say that won’t basically be the response of Western states to waves of refugees left desperate by massive floods, summer firestorms and the crop failures that come with them and the climate change that is likely to be making them more frequent? The age of control is abandoned for the age of blocking out the world. (The zombie is something that one knows to be ultimately be human, yet one cannot find any way to relate to or communicate with. It’s will is generally unknowable and unchangeable. Therefore, zombies in well for any group seen by another to be lacking in rationality and humanity.)
At dinner that night, the Major further explains his world view:
This is what I’ve seen in the four weeks since infection. People killing people. Which is much what I saw in the four weeks before infection, and the four weeks before that, and before that, and as far back as I care to remember. People killing people. Which to my mind, puts us in a state of normality right now.
Thus the Major confirms that it really doesn’t matter that the dark-skinned man he has chained in the yard is infected with a virus, he would still see him as fundamentally dangerous and uncontrollable. After all, man’s inhumanity to man is why he has a job, isn’t it? To a sergeant who takes a different philosophical view, noting that if the infection were to make humanity extinct, it would be a return of normality in the context of the history of the Earth, he asks: “why exactly did you join the army?”
What, then, are the practical implications of this ideology? The Major soon explains to Murphy that some of his men grew suicidal because “there was no future,” and so he felt the need to “promise them women.” Which means that Harris and Burns are to be used as sexual property and designated baby-makers, and while Murphy is invited to join this order, there’s really no stopping this new state of affairs. This completes the Major’s outlook: his job, in rebuilding, is to maintain a societal order that is militaristic and patriarchal to the extreme.
It’s here where the connection with the War On Terror is strongest, because the specifics of the plans and views in both situations can be abstracted thus: in the face of a threat, those in power reject or abandon a rights-based model in order to make previously desired actions, which are now justified pragmatically by way of an overstatement of danger. In the War on Terror, the right of habeus corpus, the right to not be wiretapped, the right to not be tortured, and the right not to be bombed or invaded are abandoned by those who declare that small groups of terrorists making attacks of significant but by no means overwhelming size hate our freedom and are in a war against Democracy and Civilization, although in reality they do not possess the ability to defeat either of these concepts or systems. The actions so justified happen to align closely with the world view that those in power already had. In the War on Rage Zombies, the right not to be conscripted into a forced-breeding program (and, basically, gang-raped) is abandoned by those who declare that there’s nothing to be done in the face of the infection but start again from a masculine, military core, with values that happen to align closely with the world view that those in power already had. Here too there is reason to think that this threat is overstated. The previously mentioned skeptical sergeant believes that human life continues as normal in most of the world, and the British Isles are merely under quarantine, not the last bastion of civilization.
Lo and behold, this is soon confirmed. When Murphy and the sergeant are taken out to be shot for their free-thinking and female sympathies, Murphy escapes over the wall surrounding the manor while one solider squabbles with another over not letting him stab the sergeant with a bayonet. (Is water-boarding torture?, asks liberal democratic society.) Immediately after crossing the wall, Murphy looks to the sky to see a jet and its contrails – proof that modern technological civilization still exists, and will eventually be coming back for Britain. While of course there is no reason that the same aircraft would not be visible on the other side of the wall, those inside don’t notice it. The defenses also serve as an ideological quarantine, a periphery shield keeping certain kinds of information out.
Murphy then returns to save the day, and the first step in his assault on the manor is to release the infected human who has been kept chained. Once let loose, he begins infecting the soldiers, many of whom are absolutely beside themselves with fear, and also become easy victims for a now bloodthirsty Murphy. I found this section the hardest to parse. On the one hand, he’s fighting violence with more, nearly animalistic, violence, a militaristic ideology, on the other hand, he’s taking up the guerrilla tactics of an insurgent or a Rage Zombie. This latter identification is expressed by Harris, who is about to attack Murphy with a machete, only stopping within the split second she sees that his eyes remain the same. (Yet both of these characters have been chopping up plenty of zombies earlier in the film.) The space between acceptable and unacceptable violence, humanity and inhumanity remains difficult to find and not much “longer than a heartbeat.” The difference may lie in the model of human rights the army rejects and the infected ignore, and the different kind of future it promises. (The film is also, of course, an action thriller, and this is how plots are usually resolved.)
Short ending shorter: our protagonists survive, move to a nice spot in the country, and as the film ends, have finished their cloth welcoming sign for passing aircraft, transforming their “hell” into “hello.” A big happy humanist ending from the man who brought us Slumdog Millionaire.
As the jets fly across the countryside, they pass over infected humans, now panting and unable to move, clearly dying. The extremism of Major Henry West was never necessary. This Rage, like other rages, passes in time.